Morning Stripes: Bengals back in division

The Cincinnati Bengals see a real opportunity looming before them the next two weeks. With a pair of AFC North games on the horizon, including Sunday's contest at Baltimore, they are in the very real position of being able to establish some separation in the division race.

Wins the next two weeks could give the Bengals enough of a cushion that thoughts of a division title might begin playing out inside their heads. Although they don't really want to have any of those thoughts until after the final whistle of Week 17 blows late next month, they certainly wouldn't be faulted if they allowed such thoughts to manifest in their minds, even if ever so briefly.

The bottom line is this: These next two weeks are crucial to dictating how the remainder of the season will go. Just like how the last four -- five if you want to include this week -- were important because of how often the Bengals were on the road, these next couple are important because of their division significance.

When the Bengals began this four-road-trip in five-week tour that ends this weekend, they had hoped to go a clean 5-0, winning all those games away from home. Some fans and most media thought they'd be lucky to win at least four of those games; the home contest being among them. Currently at 3-1 during this stretch, the likely 4-1 finish that most expected is still a very real possibility. Those wins do, in fact, include the 40-point blowout of the New York Jets at home two weeks ago.

As the Bengals step back into AFC North action with this road game at Baltimore and next week's rematch against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, the need to win increases dramatically. By beating Pittsburgh at home in Week 2 and losing at Cleveland in Week 4, the Bengals are currently 1-1 in division play this season. As well as they have played non-AFC North teams, they can ill-afford to lose to their familiar foes these next two weeks.

In this Tuesday's Morning Stripes, we begin with a look at how seriously the Bengals are taking the next two games which precede their bye week:

  • Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson has this blog post on the stretch looming for Cincinnati. With a beat-up defense and a team that will emerge from its off week taking a cross-country trip to San Diego, these are games the Bengals have to win, Hobson surmises. While the current lead they have built up means a loss in either of those games isn't the end of the world, it still sets up a scenario where any one of the other division teams could rally by season's end and overtake them or claim a tiebreak if the race ended knotted.

  • In his "Morning Line" column from Monday, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty rattles off a few bullet points with his quick-hit thoughts on the happenings in the Cincinnati sports scene. One of his main bullet points had to do with the Bengals' loss Thursday night at Miami. Don't sweat it, he said. Perhaps the loss is a sign the Bengals aren't ready for the big stage -- they did win on "Monday Night Football" earlier this year, though -- but it doesn't mean much else, for now, he said. He also has points about giving the ball to Giovani Bernard, stresses the weight that now is settling on Andy Dalton's shoulders and mentions how disastrous defensive tackle Geno Atkins' injury could end up being. He's right, that injury will have an intangible domino effect.

  • Without Atkins in the rotation on the interior of the Bengals' defensive line, the load now gets heavy for the next man up, Brandon Thompson, Hobson writes for Bengals.com. But Thompson isn't worried. He's focused on playing his game and maintaining an even keel as he tries to replace Atkins, who was lost for the season last Thursday after tearing his ACL.

  • The Bengals and their neighbor Cincinnati Reds will have a somewhat busy Tuesday afternoon, as they help dedicate a new playground and community garden in the city's East End. According to FOX affiliate WXIX (Fox19), parts of the recreation complex were built by 44 Bengals and volunteers from other Cincinnati-based companies during a service build event late last month. The center is the city's first state-of-the-art, accessible complex of its kind, says FOX19. The center is expected to give people with physical and cognitive disabilities a new place to participate in athletic competition. Along with several Bengals, Reds pitcher Mat Latos is expected at the event.